This December will mark seventy years since the Royal Gorge Bridge was strung 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River where it cuts through a sheer canyon a dozen miles outside of Canon City. The project was the brainchild of Lon Piper, a San Antonio toll-bridge promoter who conceived the undertaking not as a feat of conveyance, but of salesmanship and tourism. Unlike spectacular transportation engineering achievements, such as Trail Ridge Road, which is cut high into the side of a mountain, the Royal Gorge Bridge goes nowhere. Once you're on the other side, there is nothing to do but turn around.
The dedication of the bridge in 1929 was nonetheless a cause for pomp and festivity. On the morning of December 8, dignitaries from Denver and across the state boarded a special train on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. It left Denver at eight in the morning and arrived at the Royal Gorge at 12:45 p.m. There passengers enjoyed a long roster of entertainment. "Miss Opal Joyce, the most beautiful young woman in Fremont County, who is Miss Fremont County, pronounced the bridge open," the Denver Post reported. The project, which had been financed entirely by Piper, cost $350,000--$100,000 over budget--and had taken six months to complete.
Because the bridge was always intended as a destination rather than a thoroughfare, its purpose has always been profit. Yet the 1,260-foot long span was also seen as an extraordinary example of man's ingenuity in overcoming, and even enhancing, the obstacles of nature. "The Royal Gorge bridge does not profane nor vandalize this grandeur and sublimity of the great chasm it spans," the Canon City Record reported the day after the dedication, "but adds to its beauty and makes available to the vision the mighty depths otherwise hidden to the human eyes." People flocked to see it.
Other engineering marvels were soon added. In June 1931 a funicular train that slid down Telephone Gulch at a 45-degree angle was installed just west of the bridge. (Two months later, a Pueblo man became the first to commit suicide there.) In 1937 outdoor lights were aimed at the bridge. "They completely illuminate the entire gorge from tip to bottom and set off the bridge itself in an effective manner," the Pueblo Chieftain raved. "It is expected that the installation will attract hundreds of additional tourists to the bridge."
Indeed, despite the rugged natural grandeur of the Royal Gorge, man-made spectacles and promotions have been part and parcel of the site ever since it opened for business. When a lodge was added to the canyon's rim in the summer of 1950, opening-day visitors were "smartly served by pretty girls in swirly, revealing skirts," according to an account of the event. Diners who managed to pull their eyes away from the fetching servers "looked enviously at a yet uncompleted miniature railway which will take craning, gasping visitors near the edge of the gash in the earth." Over the years, concerts, giant conga lines and bungee-jumpers have all drawn visitors to the gorge.
From the vantage point of Canon City, the prison town of 14,000 that owns the land surrounding the bridge and all of its tourist accoutrements, and the Texas-based corporation that has run the attraction since its opening, the busy site has worked out just fine. Year after year, the private Royal Gorge Bridge Company of Dallas earns a tidy profit for itself. And each year, the company has issued a rent check to Canon City based on the tourist revenue it's received in the previous year.
Lately, that check has been worth more than $1 million, a sum that has made Canon City's property taxes the lowest in the entire state. Steve Rabe, the city's administrator, says that Canon City is just completing the annexation of a residential neighborhood. When the new $250,000 homes are completed, their owners will pay just under $75 a year in property taxes. A similarly priced home in Denver is taxed about $2,000 annually.
Such an arrangement ought to be appreciated by people like William Fehr, a 42-year-old businessman who recently purchased a 700-acre ranch outside the city, at the mouth of the Royal Gorge itself. But it isn't. Instead, the whole thing tends to irritate him. "They have such a gorgeous resource here that, in spite of themselves, they get 500,000 visitors a year," he gripes.
In fact, he adds, it just might be the case that he himself, a mere fourth-generation Pennsylvania gravel and rock miner, could do a better job managing the entire show--the bridge, the funicular, the tram installed in 1969, the food booths, the miniature railroad, the theater. It'd probably even be a kick. "Don't you think this would be fun to run?" he asks on a recent day while standing at the lip of the gorge, his ponytail whipping in a strong wind, the bridge stretching nearly a quarter-mile over the abyss in front of him. "It'd be totally cool."
And it has been a source of much consternation among Canon City officials and residents grown accustomed to the longstanding lucrative arrangements that, like it or not, Fehr's opinion matters. The reason is that last summer, quite by accident--and surprising no one more than himself--the 41-year-old East Coast transplant found himself owning part of the Royal Gorge Bridge.
Now he'd like to play with his new toy. "This could be a gold mine," he says. "It makes me drool."
Michael Jenkins has been in the attractions business for his entire adult life. He started at Six Flags Over Texas, where he was in charge of personnel and shows. When the founder of that amusement park decided to leave, Jenkins left, too. But more and more people began calling him for expert advice on how to run their attractions, and so, about twenty years ago he founded his own company, Leisure and Recreational Concepts--LARC. Today, he says, LARC is involved in more than 900 projects worldwide.
One of those dates back to 1984, when Jenkins was contacted by a representative of a wealthy Texas oil family named Murchison to run a concession they were leasing from a small city in south-central Colorado. Ever since then, LARC has run the day-to-day operations of the Royal Gorge Bridge for the Murchisons. Jenkins likes to think that LARC has brought a little professionalism to the place.
"Early on, the Murchisons hired a man to operate it who knew very little about the industry," Jenkins recalls. "He would take a trip to Yellowstone National Park every year, and if the workers there had blue uniforms, he would dress the workers at the Royal Gorge in blue; if they had brown uniforms, the Royal Gorge workers wore brown. I'm not being critical," he says, "but for years, people thought it was part of the National Park Service."
Today the Royal Gorge Bridge is overseen personally by Jenkins's wife, Wendy, who flies in every couple of weeks from LARC's Dallas headquarters to ensure that operations are running smoothly. Which, until last year, they were. Bill Fehr, Wendy says, is not just an interloper. Besides, such a person, one who stumbles on good fortune, doesn't really deserve it.
"We've spent quite a bit of time building that park," she says. "And we feel it's unfair for someone who probably didn't know what he was getting when he bought it to hold us hostage or put a gun to our heads."
Canon City officials feel the same way. Earlier this month, the city council voted to look into how the city could take away Fehr's new and unexpected real-estate holdings through the process of condemnation. "It would be for 'the good of the people,'" explains administrator Rabe.
"I'm apparently the devil in disguise," Fehr says, feigning hurt. Much of the animosity directed toward him by locals seems to be simply the fear of the unknown. "I'm the outsider," he acknowledges.
Yet what also seems to be making people uncomfortable are issues raised by Fehr's presence that, until now, swam quietly beneath the surface of the state's most popular privately run tourist attraction. For example: Is a gorge festooned by a large bridge, guarded by a gaudy gate on one side and leading to a faux Olde Western theater and miniature railroad on the other really an attractive attraction? Fehr says that when he visits the place, which costs an adult $9, he can't help but feel like the bystander who has noticed that the emperor is buck naked.
"I can't figure out where you get value from this place," he says. "I mean, it's a tourist trap. Has anybody but me noticed how ugly things have gotten here?"
More alarming to locals than Fehr's taste in roadside tourism, however, is that his sudden presence threatens to upset the delicate, sometimes perplexing--but always profitable--balance that has existed for five decades between the citizens of Canon City, their spectacular gorge, the popular tourist site that has come to define it and the wealthy, reclusive Texas oil widow who controls the bridge.
Bill Fehr--Scourge of Canon City, Pillager of the Western Tradition, and Highway (actually, Bridge) Robber and Carpetbagger of the Worst Sort--is getting agitated.
"Look!" he screams, slamming his SUV to a sudden halt. "Look at that! What are they trying to sell with this sign? The purple and black! What are they saying? Those are colors you see in a horror flick." He snorts through his nose as the car begins rolling forward again.
The sign of his ire is Royal Gorge Bridge's trademark advertisement that begins popping up along major routes almost as soon as eastbound drivers cross into Colorado from Kansas. It is of the vague atmospheric style, depicting a silhouette of what appears to be a bridge looming over what might be a chasm. Fehr is disgusted.
"You're trying to send a message from the outside about what's on the inside," he explains. "But does that sign tell you anything about the canyon? And what do those colors mean? I don't get it. Look at Las Vegas. They spend $10 million a year on this stuff and it works. But what does this sign say to you? To me, it says one thing: Ugly. And that's the problem.
"Look at this," he yells, pointing to another sign that flies by on the road that winds from Route 50 to the gorge, at least until Fehr again screeches to a halt. He reads off the billboard in a flat monotone: "'The real thing.' I mean, whaaaat? Ugly, ugly. This is the Grand Canyon of Colorado. We deserve better.
"I call this 'Reptile Tourism,'" Fehr adds. "It's what they did 25 years ago. You know--you're driving through Wyoming, and you see the big sign: 'COME SEE THE REPTILES!'"
Fehr's interest in roadside bridge promotion is, by his own admission, a recent preoccupation. Until late last year, all he really cared about was starting a gravel-mining operation at the mouth of the Royal Gorge. Before that it was Breckenridge's next big powder day.
"I don't like to be treated as somebody who has money," he says. "That's why I liked Breckenridge. I could go there and act like a ski bum and no one knew. I got the local discount."
That wasn't too likely to happen in Reading, Pennsylvania, where Fehr is from and where his family is the well-known--and well-to-do--owner of Berks Products, a large mining- and construction-materials company started in 1896 by Horace Fehr. It was practically preordained that Bill would someday run the family business, and after earning a master's degree in international management at a college in Arizona, Bill, like his father and grandfather before him, returned to Reading and joined the family business.
But by 1995 "it had got to the point where I didn't want to be in the family business anymore," he says. "So I took a payoff from my sisters and went to Breckenridge to become a ski bum." (In a February 1996 article, the Reading Eagle hinted at a slightly different version of the story, noting that "the company still refuses to comment on the abrupt ouster of William Fehr a year ago.")
Still, Fehr says he was more than ready to leave the company town. Reading, Berks Products and the ubiquitous Fehr family presence had become far too stifling. "I mean, my sister's president of the Junior League," he explains. "I'm like...uuuuurrrrelll," he groans, sticking his finger down his throat. "Barf me out."
One day, after about a month of playing in Colorado's brilliant champagne powder, he was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling when, he recalls, he had a revelation: "I'm bored to death." Searching for direction in his life, his mind soon wandered to the one thing he knew more about than anything else, and he formulated a plan. "I thought to myself, 'I'll go look for an aggregate deposit,'" he remembers.
After scouring geological maps of Colorado, Fehr settled on the Canon City area, where hard, beautiful rock lay just beneath the surface. His attentions soon focused further on a 700-acre ranch at the head of the Royal Gorge. It had been homesteaded by the Harvey family in 1860; now it was owned by two descendants, one of whom lived in Englewood.
Fehr wooed her aggressively, visiting four times in six months. At last the woman agreed to sell the ranch. "She told me, 'My mama always told me that the only thing this place was good for was a rock farm, and somebody finally figured that out,'" Fehr recalls her saying as they struck the deal.
As luck would have it, at precisely the same time that Fehr was trying to convince the Harvey sisters to give up the farm so that he could move in, Southern Pacific Railroad was looking to get out of the Canon City area.
In 1996, Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads, seeking greater efficiency, decided to merge. Prior to that time, the Southern Pacific had used what was known as the Tennessee Pass line, which rolled through the Royal Gorge, to run rail shipments between Salt Lake City and Kansas. But after the merger, the new company decided it made more sense to run its trains on the better-maintained Union Pacific line that bisected northern Colorado.
"The Tennessee Pass line was not seen as necessary to our operations of the railroad," explains UP spokesman Ed Trandahl. But to the new owner of a fledgling rock-and-gravel operation in Parkdale called Agile Stone Systems, the abandoned tracks through the Royal Gorge looked like cheap, scenic transportation.
As it did to about 185 other companies. But Governor Roy Romer had made it clear that whoever bought the line should use it as it had been used for the past century: to carry passengers and cargo. Fehr quickly teamed up with another person looking to buy the line--Lindsey Ashby, better known as the owner of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a successful tourist attraction in Clear Creek County. Last June their new partnership, Rock & Rail Inc., was awarded the twelve-mile line. Although Fehr declines to name the price, it was reported to be less than $1.5 million.
Fehr signed the purchase papers with Union Pacific in July. At the closing, he says, one of the railroad's lawyers confessed that he hadn't read all the old contracts very closely until then. He told Fehr: "You're getting something interesting."
"So I got this stack of documents this thick," Fehr continues, holding his index finger and thumb a couple of inches apart. "And I start reading them, and it was like: 'Look at what we've got here!'"
What he had, in effect, was a piece of the Royal Gorge Bridge. It all boiled down to an esoteric idea called "air rights."
"When somebody builds something over our rail line, we want to make sure that it meets our standards," explains UP's Trandahl. For example, he says, "we don't want to have a train come along and smash into a bridge because someone didn't build it right." As a result, bridge builders must be granted "air rights"--permission to use the vaporous property owned by the railroad that extends straight up from the tracks.
Those rules certainly applied in 1929, when Piper began contemplating the Royal Gorge Bridge. He approached the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, which owned the railroad at the time, and asked for a right-of-way over the railroad. After satisfying itself that Piper's bridge design wouldn't collapse on its trains, the company agreed to lease the "space" over the railroad to the Texan promoter for $200 a year. Later, when the funicular was built--it landed on the gorge floor on railroad property--the same deal was reached.
In the decades that followed, the arrangement was never altered: Whoever ran the bridge paid whoever owned the rail line $200 a year for the right-of-way 1,000 feet above the tracks and another $200 for the small piece of land at the bottom of the canyon occupied by the funicular.
Until last summer, when that person became Fehr.
And the more Fehr learned about his new property, the bigger his plans became, until he began thinking to himself, Forget the air rights. He knew someone who could do a much better job than anyone else of running the entire attraction: him. Even better, it was a proposition he was suddenly in a position to enforce, as whoever ran the bridge needed his permission to stay in business.
Fehr soon began to wonder why an elderly widow in Texas kept a Colorado bridge at all. "I don't even know why she wants it," he says. "She doesn't live here. She doesn't visit here. It's a toy to her."
"Mrs. Murchison is wundaful lady," drawls Jerry Smith, the Dallas business manager for the Murchison family. "Wundaful. An' she luuuvs that bridge. She goes up there quite often; she loves the views. But she won't speak to you. I wouldn't even dare ask her. But I can tell you this," he says firmly before hanging up: "Our whole goal is to regain that contract."
For a half-century, separating the contract to run the Royal Gorge scenic attraction from the Murchisons of Texas hasn't been much of an issue. Looking back, it's hard to believe that such an ironclad business arrangement all started with a friendly poker game.
By the end of World War II, Lon Piper had operated the bridge over the Royal Gorge for nearly two decades. But battered financially by the Great Depression and the war, he found himself desperately low on cash. Neglected by its maker, the park was deteriorating. (In 1940, Canon City briefly considered returning the whole parcel to the federal government in the hopes that it would be fixed up; however, the war intervened and the transfer never happened.)
So in 1947 Piper sold out. The rights to the attraction were acquired by a group of Fremont County businessmen who were convinced that the bridge was too valuable an institution to lose. The investors included people such as Roy Best, warden of the nearby state penitentiary, and Harry Turner, a Canon City grocery store owner. It was a diverse group, but its members all had something in common: Each was a poker buddy with the person who had arranged the deal, a whirlwind of a man named Ralph Wann. Wann was an indefatigable businessman and civic booster whose activities ranged from being a boardmember of the Rio Grande Railroad and the First National Bank of Denver to owning the Canon City Ford and Lincoln dealership.
Soon after arranging to buy out Piper, Wann and his wife traveled to Mexico for a long-overdue vacation. "And that's when he met Clint Murchison, totally by chance," says Walter Jenks, now 65, who worked at the bridge for almost forty years before retiring as president in 1985. "Mr. Wann proposed that the Murchisons buy the Royal Gorge bridge. And he did. He bought it sight unseen, lock, stock and barrel."
Known among business associates and underlings as Mr. Clint, Murchison was an old-time Southern entrepreneur whose empire stretched across the country. By the time he acquired the Royal Gorge Bridge in 1947, he'd already amassed a far-flung business portfolio that included oil, gas (he built the Southern Union Gas Company), agricultural land and real estate. Such widespread holdings apparently kept him away from Colorado; Jenks says Murchison died without ever having seen his bridge.
Following his death, Clint's considerable holdings were turned over to Murchison Brothers, a conglomerate run by his two sons, Clint Jr. and John. (The Royal Gorge Bridge was not their biggest business. Among many, many other things, the brothers for a time owned the Dallas Cowboys.) John died in 1979, whereupon the brothers' assets were divided among his survivors. His widow, Lucille, known as Lupe and now in her seventies, ended up with the bridge. She insisted on it.
"Lucille sued the rest of the family over the ownership of the bridge," Jenks recalls. "There was quite a battle. I think she has a strong emotional attachment to it."
Jerry Smith disputes that account. But, he adds, Jenks's recollection of Lupe's affection for the site is accurate. "She just loves it," he says. "She's put a lot of time and money into it, and she comes to visit at least a couple times a year. She thinks it's neat, I guess."
The city agrees, and for seventy years the Royal Gorge Bridge Company has had a rock-solid lock on the tourist concession, an arrangement the Texans have managed to keep in place through the use of extraordinarily long-term deals. The first was struck between Piper and Canon City. In exchange for actually building the bridge, Piper was given a twenty-year lease to run the attraction and collect whatever fees he charged tourists to visit the site. Initially he paid the city $1,000 a year for the rights. (During the Depression, when business plummeted, the city agreed to accept only half that fee. But the Royal Gorge Bridge Company continued to pay Canon City only $500 a year through 1956, when the Texas enterprise agreed to pay the city a percentage of its revenue instead.)
Piper's first lease came with an option to renew, and another twenty-year deal was struck in 1947. Since then, the relationship between the Murchisons and Canon City has rarely been seriously tested. In 1967, after a contentious bidding war among a half-dozen companies eager to acquire the tourist concession, the Murchisons won yet another twenty-year contract. That deal, which has been re-signed several times since, is due to expire in October 2001. It is a date in which Bill Fehr has become very interested.
Late last year, soon after Fehr had purchased the old UP rail line, Canon City officials received a letter from him and his attorney saying, in essence, "We sure would like a shot at operating that bridge," recalls city administrator Rabe. "So I suggested he send in a proposal."
Fehr says he was happy to oblige. He whipped up a letter outlining his plans for the bridge and shot it over to city council, who looked at it and said, uh, never mind. "We weren't actually accepting proposals," Rabe explains. "The Murchisons have asked for an extension [of the last twenty-year deal]. As a gentleman, you sit and negotiate, and you don't talk to someone else when you're doing it."
He adds: "They have a seventy-year track record, and that merits a look at an extension."
Fehr was furious. "Why don't they put this out to bid?" he sputters. "That's what everyone else does. I would think they would welcome another bid." In fact, Fehr says, he has promised to increase revenue to the city and still put all his profits back into the site.
When Fehr hadn't heard back from Canon City by late January, he went to Plan B.
"I wouldn't exactly call it blackmail," says Rabe. "That wouldn't be nice."
Exactly, says Fehr. Think of it as a long-overdue rent increase.
Three months ago, Fehr informed Lucille Murchison that the right-of-ways over his rail line were going to cost a little more than they had in the past. Instead of $400 annually, he decided, the new price would be $750,000 per year. Fehr says it's a fair price; Rabe's not so sure.
"I think he's trying to raise the price so much that it wouldn't be feasible for the Murchisons to operate the bridge any longer," he hypothesizes. "Mr. Fehr is a very intelligent business man. He's calculated out what he wants done, and he's confident this is the way to do it."
In early April, the city council laid down its own hand. It hired the high-powered Denver law firm of Holme, Roberts and Owen to begin planning condemnation of the air rights now held by Fehr--a move Fehr says he is prepared to fight. "If you sue my client," Fehr's lawyer wrote four weeks ago to the city council, "you will involve the city in a lengthy and expensive litigation. The $100,000 you have budgeted for this will not scratch the surface. And that's if you win."
For most of the time they have operated the Royal Gorge Bridge, the Murchisons hired locals to run the bridge and the surrounding attractions. The people were extraordinarily loyal, many staying with the company for decades before retiring. Jenks, for instance, started working for the Royal Gorge Bridge Company in 1949, when he was fifteen, leafletting cars and homes when the company was campaigning to regain the contract to operate the bridge.
Jenks didn't stop working for the company until 1985, three years after Lupe Murchison hired the Jenkinses and LARC. "I felt that after nine years of being president, I knew how to run the place," Jenks says. "They disagreed."
To the Jenkinses, of course, the change has worked wonders for the park--and, by extension, for the residents of Canon City, who reap the rewards each year at tax time. "Business at the gorge has increased every single year," Michael Jenkins says proudly. "We have more activities, more products."
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Yet Walter Jenks, who still lives in Canon City, isn't so sure that's progress. "Mr. Murchison always told me, 'We're running a scenic attraction,'" he recalls. "He said that there was to be nothing that detracted from the scenic beauty of the gorge. And that was the way I tried to run it--real quiet, trying not to take anything away from the gorge.
"But now," he continues, "there's all these different things there: a carousel, more theaters. We always had one restaurant and a bar; now there's food service everywhere. I guess it works; they get a lot of money. But it's a different place from when I was there. It used to be a scenic attraction. Now it's an amusement park."
Exactly, says Fehr, and it's high time for a change. So he is making big plans for the site he fully intends to be running in a year and a half. The last thing he wants to do is ruin a good thing. But, he says, nodding toward the bridge, "I don't think this place has kept up with the times." For starters, let's get rid of those stupid signs. "You pay people to change their signs," he proposes. "You talk to them."
Next, he wonders, "why aren't there parks and soccer fields around here? I mean, what a great place for an athletic field, on the edge of the gorge! And why aren't there any mountain-bike trails here? Let's set some up. I'd like to see a mountain-bike race down the gorge. Let's get ESPN2 here!